When it comes our cars, how far do we want technology to take us — or to lead us?
Automated automotive safety systems are becoming the hot topic amongst manufacturers and government safety agencies alike. And when one takes the technology to its logical conclusion, it begs the question as to whether one prefers to act the knowledgeable, safe driver, or cede control to a robot car that will steer your car back into its proper lane, or stop your vehicle short of a collision.
Right now you have a choice, as some of these technologies are mere options and others are still experimental; it may be, though, that our choices will become more limited as time goes on. The car companies and the government both claim to have our best interests at heart … but their interests, in the form of expensive options and government regulations and automaker profits, always do seem to triumph, don’t they? In any case, the NHTSA is committed to pushing automakers to develop electronic safety systems that actively reduce fatal accidents. With technologies such as Mercedes-Benz’s Active Brake Assist,Volvo’s Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake, and Ford’sCurve Control systems taking over for the driver in emergency situations, many would-be fatal accidents have already been avoided (as the commercials from some of those manufacturers are quick to point out). NHTSA has lauded these systems and continues to push for more safety interventionist technologies. Computer-aided accident avoidance has become the major focus of safety research.
The fact is, cars are already capable of driving entirely without humans and they are much better at technical driving than you or I or even some of the best professionals. And while that’s only true on a track, without the randomness and unpredictability and variability of highway driving among others, it does lend a bit of credibility to the idea that the right technology could guard us against chaos — and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seems to agree.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Berlin Institute for Technologyhave delved into the driver’s brain with the aim of developing new ways to avoid accidents, with interesting results. By attaching electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes to the scalp of a test subject in a driving simulator, they were able to establish a baseline brain reading. They then ran the subject through potentially hazardous braking situations and found that brainwaves spiked before the subject applied the brakes; that is, some part of the brain recognized the danger before the body could react. They then ran the same simulations, but had the EEG spike trigger the application of the brakes before the subject could — it resulted in a faster response by 130 milliseconds, which sounds like a pittance but, at 62 mph, adds up to almost 12 feet of saved stopping distance.
Computer assist systems may continue to augment the driver’s experience until the driver becomes, well, a passenger. Volvo’s ‘Road Train’ technology, in which a lead driver takes control of a platoon of vehicles behind him, allows the cars to follow each other at small intervals over long distances and the drivers to put their attention wherever they please.
There’s more: BMW recently let journalists ‘drive’ their 330i Track Trainer, where in reality the journos just sit in the driver’s seat in case anything goes wrong with the pre-programmed racetrack route; DARPA’s Grand Challenge has vehicles traversing deserts and urban environments entirely autonomously — and quite successfully (in the financial sense, as well, with some winners claiming purses of up to $2 million). And now, some of the engineers that cut their teeth with the Grand Challenge have been hired by Google, who now operate their own fleet of robot chauffeuredPrii (and one Audi). The Google program has logged over 140,000 test miles, and the company has been lobbying Nevada to amend some legislative bills in order to legalize the autonomous vehicles. When you think that robot cars are the vehicles of the future, consider that these autonomous cars have been on the road for over a year in California during Google’s secret research and testing.
From voice recognition systems to autonomous cars, “car trains” and vehicles that steer or stop themselves, automated safety technology is moving ahead at an ever-increasing pace. One key thing everyone needs keep in mind is this: Despite what technology can do to fix human error, what happens when the technology itself malfunctions, as seen when Volvo’s Pedestrian Avoidance System failed spectacularly on several occasions?
As MIT professor John Leonard, a participant in DARPA’S 2007 Urban Grand Challenge, puts it: “Despite all the best efforts of the robot designers, humans still do stupid things. Suppose 10 human-generated fatalities are replaced with five robot-generated fatalities, is that an ethical trade that society wants to make?”